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London is full of life and greener than many think.
  • London's housing crisis

    I took a call this morning from a lovely lady called Elsie Pilbeam.

    She and her partner, Tony, used to live near some flats off east London's Dunston Road on what was then the Haggerston Estate. They used to enjoy watching house martins zoom down to the nearby Regents' Canal to gather wet mud for building their nests under the eaves of the flats. The estate is now almost completely gone, apart from one block which has three active nests. Elsie says she's seen small heads poking out of the dry-mud nests and added that there are crusty scars of old nests, testament to the fact that there used to be far more martins here.

    A house martin building its nest on modern flats in Leabank Square, east London, not far from the old Haggerston Estate. Apologies for my wonky photography.

    Elsie and Tony still live locally and regularly walk past the site. They've kept nature diaries for the past 25 years, so know what they're talking about. She spoke fondly of the swifts nesting near her new home but there's a sad note to her voice when she states confidently that there are far fewer swifts and martins than there used to be.

    There were more than 400 homes on the old estate. The plan is to replace them with 761 new homes made up of flats and houses with community facilities. These human homes are desperately needed, but so too are homes for nature. There's plenty of research showing the importance of integrating nature and architecture. The benefits for people and wildlife are huge; yet far too many new developments still fail to deliver on their promises.

    Architects and builders have few excuses. There's even a new British Standard to help them. BS42020 lays out clear templates and guidance reflecting international and national targets to halt the loss and decline of biodiversity by the year 2020. 60% of our UK species are vanishing and much of this decline is because we've removed or altered the places wildlife calls home. So will the new Haggerston estate have space for martins? Elsie, Tony and I certainly hope so and we'll be looking out for them.


    RSPB London is in discussion with others, such as London Wildlife Trust, on the practicalities of establishing a new task force of monitors, ensuring environmental promises made in planning applications are delivered and maintained. Too often, irresponsible developers drop "green" promises or falsely claim to have delivered green infrastructure. At the moment it's unchecked. For those who say... "So what!"  Without wildlife much of the food you buy would not be available. More trees, green spaces, shrubs and hedges can help manage the impact of climate change; reducing air temperatures and humidity and reducing the risk of flash floods from heavy downpours. Nature saves you money and provides all the essentials you need to live. When rogue developers fail to meet the promises they made to gain planning permission, they cheat tax payers and harm wildlife. It's time these cowboys were brought to book. 

  • Cheek by jowl

    London's packed. Stuffed with some eight million people and many billion other creatures, all encircled by the greenbelt and the ligature of the M25.

    So it's no surprise that occasionally conflict arises between nature and people or the infrastructure that people rely upon.

    In north London there's a row between residents and Network Rail. The latter want to undertake some emergency habitat work and, based on past experience, the residents are concerned that more habitat will be removed than is necessary. British Transport Police are arbitrating and hopefully a mutually agreed solution will be found. A couple of years ago there was a similar confrontation in the same area and I made an emergency weekend visit to see if breeding birds would be disturbed by some rushed embankment clearance.

    Network Rail staff, British Transport Police and RSPB inspecting habitat during previous emergency work in North London

    Habitat work at this time of year is generally avoided as most species are sitting on eggs on nests. Disturbing them would be illegal. But if say, a train signal was being obscured by a leafy branch, the law has to decide whether nature trumps safety. It currently feels as though there's huge effort being put into stripping legislation or watering it down in favour of investment. Economic arguments are not the same as human safety concerns and I'd always put nature over greed. Once you've destroyed or removed a tree or a species, it and all it supports or provides is gone forever. Greed on the other hand will always find a way to further itself.

    It's not just these legal areas where conflict arises. In a bizarre repetition of history, blonde women joggers are avoiding south west London's Eltham Park where crows seem to have a grudge against moving, fair-haired individuals. In a scene that sounds reminiscent of Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds, crows have pecked and clawed at a number of people unlucky enough to trigger a reaction from the birds. The exact same thing happened in the same park back in 2010. The crows may well be acting in self-defence. We know they have good memories and we know they will fiercely protect their nests when breeding. One popular theory is that these birds in Eltham Park suffered either at the hands of an unknown blonde (male, female or possibly non-human such as a fair haired or furred creature) at some point in the past.

    A carrion crow - don't judge it by its looks. It's being a good parent.

    One victim, named in an article n the Sun newspaper as Sarah Green, said: "The bird swooped down very fast, landed on my head and started pecking away. It felt quite big and strong and had its claws in my hair. I was shaking my head and flapping my arms trying to get it off. The bird flew off but soon returned “harder and faster,” tearing off the bobble holding Sarah’s hair in place. She added: “It’s put me off running around the park. I think I’m going to stick to the roads.”

    Then there's the possibility of nature having an impact on nature and being observed or interpreted by people. Social media has been highlighting the sudden appearance of carp in the Regent's Canal. They may well have been there in large numbers for years but they are currently very visible as they're spawning and do so in shallow, warm water at the edges of waterways where eggs will lodge in weeds. This high visibility has led to speculation that the fish are to blame for the lack of baby ducks, coots and moorhens on this stretch of the canal. Fish have been known to eat baby birds, but, the two observations might not be linked.

    Tolerance and respect are required for successful coexistence in a crowded city and an insatiable appetite for discovery and understanding always helps.

  • Different strokes

    I was chatting with a new member of our London team the other day and inevitably the subject of motivation came up. That little devil on my shoulder bit my ear then shouted in its loutish voice... "Motivation? You're like a pig in clover. You are able to let motivation choose your career choice? You don't know how lucky you are".

    When I was in my final year at school, the careers advice was: "You can choose one of the three F paths in life. Farming, Forces or Factory". Presented with this meagre list of options and the facts that all the local farms were large family owned busineses with sons lined-up to inherit and that my Dad told me not to follow him through the factory gates, I went to discover the world. In my view, I chose life as the character Renton says in Irvine Welsh's novel Trainspotting. After a succession of jobs, I chose conservation. It links me with my childhood experiences of living and working in the countryside. It requires the skills I learned as a journalist and developed during my time working with communities and educators in regeneration, tempered by my time serving customers in cafes and garages or labouring on sites, farms and in gardens. Some of those earlier jobs were gained through necessity, but now I have been able to let my ideals steer my career choice.

    Annual street party where we share food and meet new neighbours

    So here I am in London where neighbours in my street have never eaten an apple they've personally plucked from a tree and where many of my children's primary schoolfriends don't know the difference between beef, lamb or chicken; to them it's just meat and has no link with any living animals. How do I share my excitement over green roofs or sustainable drainage systems? How do I begin to explain why chopping down trees and paving over gardens is causing flooding and higher summer temperatures? Why did we help London Underground manage their embankments for nature? Then there's the BIG question I'm constantly asked ... "Why does it matter if the birds or bees die?

    I could quote the many world religions on mans "custodianship" of nature. I could say we have an inherent responsibility. Maybe I could opt for the threat approach that 90% of the world's food crops come from just 100 plant species and that 71 of those are dependent on honey bee pollination. Maybe mention that a single swift can gobble ten thousand flying bugs, such as mosquitoes, every day, saving human lives otherwise blighted by malaria. I could give them tons of research on how plants soak up rain and pollutants while providing oxygen and cool air or how birds clean-up dead and rotting material or help spread seeds. There are so many things nature does for us that we could never afford to do artificially.

    The bottom line is that we're all dependent on natural resources and we're already using more than exists. That's why 60% of the UK's species are vanishing and partly to blame for the increased climate extremes that bring floods and droughts. By monitoring birds we can measure that destruction. Birds are towards the top of most food chains and because they're visible, any declines in their numbers sets alarm bells ringing to say our natural systems have broken down. Right now, I'm deafened by those alarm bells.

    Nature's amazing and people are amazing. We can produce awesome films like this. We can split atoms and travel through space. Why can't we put nature before building new homes or airports in unsuitable locations, after all, without nature, there will be no need for homes or airports.